When parents discuss why they choose to give their children a Jewish education, many reply that they want their children to learn how to be good people. In my work in Jewish education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, my colleagues engaged in research that showed that kindness is the character trait taught most in Jewish camps. At the center of Jewish schools, early childhood centers, and youth programing is learning around how to be friendly, generous, and considerate. Parents and educators want children to learn how to be kind, good people.
This week's Torah portion presents us with the matriarch of kindness, Rebecca. It is timely, as we celebrated World Kindness Day on November 13.
"A servant ran toward her and said, 'Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.'
'Drink, my lord,' she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her head and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, 'I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.' Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels." (Genesis 24:17-20)
Rebecca's kindness to the animals is often the focus when teaching this story. However, there is more to(the Hebrew term for lovingkindness) than her actions with the animals.
Kindness first requires that you be considerate, seeing another person, their circumstances, and their need. Rebecca knew that not only the man but also the camels would need water. She also knew that they were too tired to get it themselves, or at least would appreciate the extra effort.
Kindness requires an act of friendliness, an assumption of good will. Rebecca was not startled or offended by the request for water by the stranger. She assumed that he was in need and worked to help.
Finally, kindness requires selflessness and generosity. Rebecca does not want or expect anything in return for her actions. The text does not focus on the exertion required to offer water to the servant and all his camels, nor on how it might have been inconvenient or even dangerous for her.
The Jewish teacher Alan Morinis in his book Everyday Holiness explains, Chesed involves acts that sustain the other…In the Jewish view, it is not enough to hold warm thoughts in our heart or to wish each other well. We are meant to offer real sustenance to one another... to qualify as chesed, these actions need to come out of kindness and no other motive."
Every day, I stand in awe of the Jewish educators I work with who focus on teaching kindness. This work is at the core of Jewish education not because of its simplicity, but because of its challenge. While it is true that there are many ways to foster kindness, living a life of chesed requires community. We use our texts and traditions, in conversation with one another, to understand how to be more friendly, considerate, and generous. We engage in the difficult work of listening to others to understand the impact of our actions, even when well-intentioned.
Sometimes the work of educators doesn't feel kind. Correcting behavior, sharing expectations, and encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their actions is hard. As an educator, some of the hardest lessons I taught were those that felt mean or unfriendly to the recipient at the time. While I tried to emphasize that I believed this individual had the capacity to do better, others might have felt my actions were unkind. Teachers and leaders know that chesed does not always feel warm and fuzzy in the moment. I'm sure Rebecca understood how hard it was to model kindness. This year, as we celebrate World Kindness Day, let's also celebrate the teachers and learners who engage in the difficult work of fostering kindness as a way of life.